“So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly…And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law…And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord.
And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’”
Nehemiah 8:2-3, 9-10
When we are given a glimpse of how far we’ve fallen away from God, how much of a distance we’ve created between us and Him, our heart begins to grieve. We mourn over lost time—lost closeness, missed opportunities, forgotten joy that is found in His presence.
In this passage, we see the people of God faced directly with not only their own sin, but also the sins of their whole nation—the falling away of generations, the rejection of the God of Israel and denial of His glory. The grief and regret they felt must have been intense, as it moved the entire assembly to weep.
And so I love the response of the priests. Instead of compelling the people to continue mourning, they calm them and tell them to rejoice. To go their way and live—not in the ignorant, sinful paths they once walked, but in the light and joy of the Lord. It reminds me of the account in John 8, when Jesus rescues an adulterous woman and compassionately tells her, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
Guilt and regret can trap us. We grieve and mourn and wish things in our past were different. But we must pick ourselves up and begin living—this time in the beauty and strength and righteousness of God, enjoying the abundant life found in Christ.
Our God does not want us to live in shame. It is a burden He bore for us and one we no longer need to carry. It is His joy that is our strength. Joy found in His presence. Joy that overcomes our regret. Joy which should flood us as we see that God’s purpose in showing us our sin, opening our eyes to the barriers keeping us from Him, is to cleanse us, break down our walls and draw us back to His side. His aim is our salvation. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10a)
The joy is in our rescue. Our God shines light into our darkness and sets us free. How much greater our rejoicing should be than even that of the people of God in this text. They had the revelation of God through the Law and the promises it held. We have that, and we have Christ, the image of the invisible God and the exact imprint of His nature, who has made peace by the blood of His cross. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Jesus, the promised Messiah, has fulfilled the Law. He has done for us what the Law could not do. He closed the gap between us and God. He covers us with His righteousness, and in Him we are forgiven, cleansed and reconciled to God our Father (Romans 8:3-4).
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,
by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.
This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
We now face forward, entrusting our story to the One who has drawn us back to Him, the One who has promised to redeem us and make all things new. We rejoice knowing that He is able even to take the darkest days of our past, the days that could haunt us with regret and shame, and make them shine with the brilliant glory of His grace. Those days are evidence that nothing is too difficult for our God. No one is too far away. “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). Our God is mighty to save. His light pierces every darkness and His power breaks every chain.
“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”